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Guest Column: Reactor a potential health risk
By JOSEPH J. MANGANO For The Capital

Letters To The Editor
The Annapolis (MD) Capital
Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Unistar Nuclear Energy is seeking federal approval to build a new nuclear reactor at the Calvert Cliffs plant on the west bank of the Chesapeake Bay, just 45 miles from Washington, D.C., and 55 miles from Baltimore.

At 1,600 megawatts, the new reactor would be easily the largest in the United States - and, at $10 billion, perhaps the most expensive. Supporters claim it will go a long way toward meeting future energy needs - and would do so in a "clean" manner.

But, even though they don't emit greenhouse gases, nuclear reactors are anything but clean. To generate electricity, they must create more than 100 radioactive chemicals otherwise produced only by atomic bomb explosions. This toxic mix includes iodine 131, which attacks the thyroid gland; strontium 90, which seeks out bones; and cesium 137, which enters muscle. Each causes cancer, and is especially hazardous to infants and children.

Many of these chemicals must be stored as waste, of which the new reactor would create 1,375 tons. This waste must constantly be cooled by water, for hundreds and thousands of years. Nearly 30 years ago, the federal government proposed sending waste to a permanent repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev. But this facility is bogged down in challenges, and may never open.

Nuclear plants are stuck with storing large amounts of waste, the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshima bombs. Any loss of cooling water, from terrorist attack or mechanical failure, would result in a meltdown, releasing huge amounts into the air. The heavily populated Baltimore-Washington area could not be evacuated in time, and thousands would suffer and die from radiation poisoning and cancer.

Washington was one of the terrorist targets on Sept. 11, 2001. The 9-11 Commission subsequently concluded that nuclear plants are also terrorist targets. Thus, building a large new reactor so close to the national capital is a risk, both for U.S. security and for public health.

Some of the 100-plus chemicals cannot be contained as waste. For a reactor to operate, they must be routinely released into the air and water. They enter the food chain and also enter human bodies through breathing.

A quarter-century ago, when the existing Calvert Cliffs reactors had just begun operating, Calvert County's cancer death rate was 2.2 percent below the Maryland rate. Now the county rate is 16 percent higher. Rates are high for whites and blacks, and are especially high for children and the elderly, who are most susceptible to radioactivity. Something has changed Calvert County from a low-cancer to a high-cancer area.

The county, a fast-growing area with about 90,000 residents, has no obvious health risks. Its population is well educated, its unemployment and poverty rates are very low, and its residents have access to medical care at the local hospital, plus world-class care in Washington and Baltimore.

Calvert's death rate for all causes is equal to the Maryland rate - except for cancer. Nearly 200 county residents die of cancer each year, and the 16 percent increase is a serious problem. Officials should study why Calvert's cancer rate is so high, and should examine its exposure to radioactivity from Calvert Cliffs.

Adding a large nuclear reactor at Calvert Cliffs may carry an excessive public health risk. The more prudent course would be to develop sources of energy such as wind, solar and geothermal power. These are renewable, will last forever and will cause no harm to human health.
The writer is the executive director of the New York-based Radiation and Public Health Project.

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